Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

To Crown the Waves: The Great Navies of the First World War
Reviewed by James Thomas

To Crown the Waves: The Great Navies of the First World War

Edited by Vincent P. O'Hara, W. David Dickson, and Richard Worth
Published by Naval Institute Press, 2013

Often it seems that the war at sea during the Great War is so overshadowed by the massive slaughter on land that it becomes a footnote to the war, or at best of secondary importance to the "real war" in the trenches. Naval historians have long disputed this, of course. The editors of To Crown the Waves contend that the naval war was, in fact, the source of victory for the Allies over the Central Powers: ". . . once the land war stalemated on the western front, it was on the waves that victory was determined." (p. 2)

To make this point, To Crown the Waves is a collection of studies of the world's major navies. Each of seven chapters examines the navy of the nations whose navies made a major contribution to the war. Great Britain, France, Russia, the United States, Italy, Germany, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire are each represented, with an eighth chapter for other nations whose navies participated in some way. Each chapter is written by an historian who specializes in a particular nation's naval history and who reads the language of the nation they are describing.

To Crown the Waves Features Excellent Images and Data Tables

Click on Image to Expand

A Photo from Steve McLaughlin's Chapter on the Russian Navy

The chapters then follow a common organizational format. The advantage of this is that the reader can easily learn parallel information for each navy. Unfortunately, this makes the book more of a reference source than for reading cover to cover. That said, despite the potential problem multi-author works of widely varying writing quality can have, the editors of To Crown the Waves do a fine job of giving the entire book a common voice and thus utterly readable.

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The format for each chapter begins with a "Backstory," a quick history of naval development for each country up to the Great War. This includes the nation's naval mission, construction philosophy, and potential enemies. Next is "Organization," which includes command, but also logistical information and personnel. The third section of each chapter describes the subject nation's "Way of War." This is the real "meat" of each chapter, making the next section "Wartime Experience and Evolution" almost anticlimactic. The chapters are then wrapped up with a "Summary and Assessments." Throughout all the chapters are plenty of charts, maps, and photographs. All the chapters are well done, and this organization makes the material easily accessible.

To Crown the Waves is not perfect, however. In the chapter on the United States, for example, twice there is reference to "Texas class" battleships. USS Texas, BB35, and her sister ship New York, BB34, were actually New York class. Mistakes such as this are rare and are ultimately of little consequence to the greater value of the book. In fact, To Crown the Waves is an excellent, well-researched and thorough study of the world's navies as they collided in World War One. Does it prove the contention that it was the fight at sea that brought victory and defeat in the war rather than those final offensives of 1918? That is left to the reader to decide.

James Thomas


  1. "it was on the waves that victory was determined." Now I'm definitely interested in reading it.

  2. That is to say, I haven't heard that argument before, and am curious as to how they go about it.
    After all, the war's major naval engagement is usually considered indecisive.
    Do the authors see submarine warfare as triggering US involvement, which ultimately won the Western Front?

  3. The usual contention is that it was the Royal Navy's blockade of German ports that brought Germany to its needs, starving it of vital supplies, food and munitions. The only cargo submarines ever built were the Deutschland class, designed to bring high-value supplies such as ball-bearings and chemicals from the USA (before April '17) to Germany avoiding the blockade, but the effort wasn't enough.

  4. Ah, I dimly remember that argument.
    Germany wasn't able to make up the maritime shortfall through central/eastern Europe, not after Austria-Hungary's collapse?

  5. Yes, that's more or less it.
    Just noticed in my post above, I typed "needs" when I meant "knees"!

  6. I enjoyed the pun, accidental or otherwise. :)